• A Communications Plan for Educating Voters and Providing Transparency

    Before the East Grand Rapids City Commission voted to approve a 10-year, 2.0-mill dedicated street and sidewalk millage on the May 2015 ballot, we knew we would have to communicate the need for the millage.  It was critical for us to provide assurance the millage would be used strictly for improving local streets and sidewalks – particularly when an unpopular statewide proposal on the ballot sought an increase in the sales tax to raise money for Michigan’s roads. We also needed to identify what steps the City had taken to solve its roads issue before going to voters, as well as what it would mean if the millage did not pass.

    We had slightly more than three months to educate voters on these points in an effective, top-of-mind way without creating an environment of information overload and voter fatigue. We also needed to focus on education, knowing City resources could not be used to influence voters.

    Our strategy included utilizing traditional and social media as well as internal tools such as the City’s website, bimonthly e-newsletter, monthly water bill insert, occasional e-blasts, one-time mailer and three face-to-face information sessions.

    The result: The millage was approved by 64 percent of the vote while the state proposal was defeated soundly.

    Unlike the East Grand Rapids millage, the state’s road funding proposal message was muddled – not only was there conflicting information, government officials did not speak with one voice. This opened the door to opposition groups, who were targeted and successful in getting their messages out and heard by the public.

    Traditional Media

    We made sure traditional media in West Michigan had all the facts surrounding the proposed millage from the onset by sending out a release the day after the commission approved it for the ballot. This allowed us to provide FAQs in a succinct and digestible way as well as explain how the City got to this point – declining road conditions + state funding not keeping pace with rising costs + citizens task force determining a millage was the best solution.

    The media also was informed of – and invited to – the three voter information sessions that were held a month before the election. We also facilitated numerous print, radio and TV interviews with the mayor and City staff ahead of the vote to get the City’s messages on the millage out early and often.

    The mayor also wrote an op-ed piece on the millage that appeared in the community weekly just a few days before the election.

    Social Media

    From a photo album showing the City’s worse-conditioned roads to providing answers to millage FAQs in an engaging way on a regular basis to reminding residents about the informational sessions and providing recaps of them, we maximized our presence on Facebook and Twitter during the pre-election education period. This proved to be a great way to broaden our reach, with the mayor, city commissioners, residents and the media amplifying our information and sharing these posts. We also made sure to provide links to where followers could find additional information about the millage on the City’s website.

    Internal Tools

    We created a page on the City’s website dedicated to the millage, providing documents, infographics, charts and other visuals aimed at educating voters on the proposed millage and the need for it. These included:

    • Fact sheet with photos
    • FAQs
    • Street condition ratings
    • Materials from the citizen task force meetings
    • Calculator that allowed voters to determine what their cost would be under the millage
    • Sample ballot
    • Video tutorial on the City’s revenues and street expenditures
    • Brochure that was included in the April water bill

    We condensed this information and repurposed it for social media, e-newsletters, water bills, e-blasts and the postcard that went to all households just before the election.

    Follow-up

    After the millage was approved by voters, we utilized the same tools we did during the education period – a release was sent to the media, shared on social media and recapped in the City’s e-newsletter a few days later.  Additionally, we facilitated several media interviews with the mayor and City staff.

    In the afterglow, we knew we would need to hold up our promise to be transparent about where the millage revenues were being spent. We created a millage dashboard on the City’s website that listed current projects being funded by the millage, which companies were awarded the contracts, the estimated start and end dates and – for streets – their before and after ratings.

    This dashboard will be a fixture on the website during the millage’s 10-year duration. Each time the dashboard is updated – monthly during the busy construction season – we let our social media followers know and encourage them to check it out.

    We also decided to use some funds to show residents via signs their millage dollars at work. These signs, reading “Project made possible by 2015 EGR street millage,” are placed wherever millage-funded projects are taking place – and they will be used each year.

    We also use social media to highlight the various millage-funded projects, taking photos and posting updates on their progress, and we provide regular construction updates in the City’s e-newsletter and water bill.

    This long-term millage will provide the City a wonderful opportunity to engage residents, the media and the broader community through traditional and social media as well as its internal tools – and provide transparency every step of the way. This engagement and transparency will go a long way toward keeping the City a trusted partner in the eyes of the community while other municipalities struggle to maintain a positive reputation.